Gold medalist Olga Kaniskina of Russia celebrates as she crosses the finish line during the women's 20km race walk during day five (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News

IAAF Race Walking Challenge 2012 - Who to watch?

And so who is going to win a share of $200,000 in the 2012 IAAF Race Walking Challenge – the ninth edition of the popular series, which gets underway in less than one month's time?

The Russian machine will as ever be fine-tuned like a Formula 1 Ferrari. The red vests will most certainly start pole position on walking’s grid because defending champions Valeriy Borchin and Olga Kaniskina leave nothing to chance.

There are some in heel and toe who do it better in their own back yard. But if the organisers held races on the far side of the Moon, these two would have chosen the right space suits months before the trip.

It will indeed be a giant step for mankind if anyone betters the marvels from the Republic of Mordovia. Both have more than enough in reserve to sweep the three big ones this year that include the IAAF World Walking Cup and the Olympics preceding a trip to Inner Mongolia for the final in September.

But, and although it’s not the biggest ‘but’ of all time, Chinese on Chinese soil tend to come good.

Two years ago in Beijing Zhen Wang and Chu Yafei blasted a one-two trail to the men's finish, with the former setting a world junior record by almost a minute.

Both, if not exactly treading on Borchin’s heels in La Coruna for the 2011 final, were not far from his shadow when taking silver and bronze.

Mexico’s Eder Sanchez has been a loyal Challenge supporter, and the 2009 winner finished fifth last year as well to underline his credentials, and as far as outsiders go, it’s pretty much now or never for Luis Fernando López.

The Colombian will be 33 in June, and after a string of podium visits over the last three years, including the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, there is just the sense he is ready to burst a vein in his climb to the top step.

As for female challengers to Kaniskina, then returning to the theme of China for the Chinese, Hong Liu is ready to give the Russian a walk for her money.

In 2011, there was a fleeting moment when Liu carved out a fair gap on her adversary after a blazing start even though Kaniskina eventually shifted through the gears to win by 17 seconds.

Of the rest, there has been a fair bit of déjà vu over the last two women’s Challenge finals.

Melanie Seeger was third in La Coruna as she was the year before, and the German was 35 on January 7 so may well call it a day at end of the season. To go out on a high clutching a wad of cash would be a fitting finale for a superb athlete.

And if there had been a team event for the Challenge, the Portuguese would be lounging around in their villas long before now.

Last year, Ana Cabecinha was fourth. One place behind came the perennial Susana Feitor who shows no signs of slowing down despite the 37 candles on her cake late last month.

In Beijing, 2010, team-mate Ines Henriques, Cabecinha and Feitor filled four, five and six as far as the money men were concerned, and you would get short odds again on another fine showing from the Iberian peninsula in this campaign as well.

Not one but two major championships form part of the 2012 Challenge.

For those who eventually make a debut date with the Chinese city of Ordos for September’s final, it will be merely a question of choosing a third race to qualify for a pay day. That’s because not only the IAAF World Walking Cup in May but also the Olympics in August are two of the three entry tickets required for a place in the final.

Anybody that’s anybody in walking is headed first to Russia’s mecca for walking in Saransk for the World Cup in May, and it goes without saying the Holy Grail of athletics awaits those who make the iconic Mall in London come August.

The rules of the IAAF Challenge demand three participations in designated events before one qualifies for the two all-important 10k finals. Prize money then goes to the top eight crossing the finish line in both men’s and women’s races in Ordos due west of Beijing. Qualifying events along the way are categorised ‘A’, and they are unsurprisingly the Olympics and the IAAF World Walking Cup.

The ‘B’ events comprise five familiar venues on the Challenge circuit starting with Chihuahua (Mexico), 3 March, Taicang (China), 30 March, Rio Maior (Portugal), 14 April, La Coruña (Spain), 9 June, and Sesto San Giovanni (Italy) on 17 June.

The ‘C’ area events start later this month as ever in Hobart, Australia on 25 February, followed by Lugano (Switzerland), 18 March, Dudince (Slovakia), 24 March, and a new kid on the block, Alytus in Lithuania making its debut on 1 June.

Given the generosity of worldwide locations and opportunities, it’s going to be some excuse bar injury if any of the fancied fail to qualify for the final on September 14.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF